With its Mode Museum and fabulous boutiques, the chic city of Antwerp is a magnet for fashion-lovers, and proves that cutting-edge style really can be accessible to all
Forgo the expense and snooty attitudes of Paris and Milan this year and try something a little different – Antwerp. Belgium’s second city landed firmly on the fashion map back in 1988, when a group of designers dubbed the ‘Antwerp Six’ were fêted at London Fashion Week. Since then, Antwerp’s reputation for avant-garde design has gone from strength to strength, with the opening of the fabulous fashion museum in 2002 and an increasing number of chic boutiques to discover.
The best known of the original six is Dries Van Noten, and the window displays at his flagship ‘Modepalais’ store are particularly daring, meaning it’s well worth seeking it out just to lust after the clothes from the street and dream you can afford them all. But if you do gather the courage to head inside (is it just me who finds high-end boutiques intimidating?), the good news is that the staff are refreshingly unpretentious and welcoming.
This attitude is replicated across Antwerp, where cutting-edge cool is mercifully devoid of the kind of patronising attitude that can be found elsewhere. Warm smiles greeted me as I stepped into the monochrome world of Ann Demeulemeester’s two-storey showroom, and I had the same experience at the weird and wonderful Walter, with its giant ‘sleeping bear’ sculpture, housing racks of colourful T-shirts. Still hip but more affordable is the cavernous Fish&Chips on Kammenstraat, just one young and stylish store among many in the surrounding streets, selling a mix of European and international streetwear labels alongside books and music. Keep an eye out for the charity shops in this area too – there are vintage treasures to discover.
To complete your fashion overload, a visit to MoMu (short for Mode Museum) is a must, for you may well spot a star of the future. Collections by the city’s latest fashion graduates are showcased alongside high calibre temporary exhibitions – the latest, 'Paper Fashion', includes designs by John Galliano and Issey Miyake, and is open until mid-August 2009.
Antwerp has been dubbed ‘the diamond capital of the world’, with half of the world’s cut diamonds passing through the city at some point. The diamond district is well worth exploring, and the free Diamondland Showroom has thousands of dazzing gems on display, while also explaining the history of the local industry. Wander the surrounding streets to gasp at the stunning jewellery (and equally stunning prices) in the stores nearby.
Another plus when shopping in the city is that virtually everyone speaks fluent English. I speak French and started my break addressing locals in that language, figuring that we were in Belgium after all, and it was better than assuming they spoke English. But I was put firmly in my place as they all replied in my native tongue – there is a great linguistic divide in this country, and if you don’t speak Flemish then English is definitely the way to go.
The city as a whole is compact and definitely walkable – I didn’t set foot on any form of public transport the entire week I was there, although there is an extensive tram network to hop on and off should you wish.
A short break in Antwerp is accessible no matter what your budget, as the city has several chic B&Bs that provide a stylish place to stay without breaking the bank. I instantly fell for the charms of Bed, Bad & Brood (‘Bed, Bath & Bread’), a lovely private house just a short walk from the centre, with three gorgeous, high-ceilinged en-suite rooms, plus apartments for longer stays. Breakfast in the light and airy dining room is a real treat too.
Another value-for-money option is the designer pod-style rooms at Qbic hotel – already popular in Amsterdam and due to open in Antwerp later this year. If you have a bit more cash to splash, the luxurious Hotel Julien is the way to go. With just 11 beautifully appointed rooms across two converted houses, it blends contemporary influences with modern style to huge effect. The hotel even offers a ‘fashion special’ package, which includes tickets to MoMu and a shopping guide in addition to two nights’ B&B accommodation and a three-course meal in a top local restaurant.
While VLM flies directly to Antwerp from the UK, you may prefer a romantic arrival by train into the city’s stunning Central Station. Not only will you step off right into the centre of the action, the return ticket from Brussels to Antwerp is free when you buy a Eurostar ticket to Brussels from London (returns from £59). The journey from Brussels takes just 45 minutes, while London to Brussels is around two hours – meaning you could arrive in time for a mid-morning coffee and croissant before hitting the shops in earnest.